Traded back to Panthers: Roberto Luongo returns to Florida sunshine as sorry Canucks saga finally comes to end

Roberto Luongo’s voice kept breaking up on the radio. It was strong, then garbled, then strong, then garbled again. The Vancouver Canucks finally traded him Tuesday – to the Florida Panthers, his former team, to tandem with Tim Thomas, of all people – and he spoke into his cellphone on the way to the Phoenix airport, trying to put it in perspective.

“There were ups and downs, no doubt about it,” Luongo told TSN Radio. “I think it was a pretty successful run. What’s going to hurt the most is making the Stanley Cup final and not winning it. That’s the thing I’m going to regret for a long time.”

That’s the thing that will haunt Luongo forever, not to mention the Canucks. That’s one of the places where all this hinged.

[Related: Canucks trade Roberto Luongo back to Panthers]

Rewind to June 10, 2011. Luongo beat Thomas in a goaltending duel, pitching a 31-save, 1-0 shutout against the Boston Bruins. The Canucks had a 3-2 series lead in the Cup final. They needed to win one of their next two games to hoist the first Cup in their history.

One more win, and who knows? Maybe things would have turned out differently or at least wouldn’t have unraveled so badly. Whatever happened afterward, Luongo and the Canucks always would have had their ring. But Luongo got lit up in Games 6 and 7, and the Canucks blew their chance. Luongo just won his second Olympic gold medal in Sochi, this time as a backup for Team Canada, but he probably will never get that close to the Cup again. The Canucks – a mess under general manager Mike Gillis – look like they won’t get that close to the Cup again anytime soon.

Gillis did not acquire Luongo from the Panthers in 2006. That was his predecessor, Dave Nonis. But it was Gillis and coach Alain Vigneault who made Luongo the Canucks’ captain in 2008, even though Luongo couldn’t wear the ‘C’ on his sweater under NHL rules, and it was Gillis who signed Luongo to a 12-year, $64 million extension in 2009, calling Luongo “the leader of our team.” Let the record show how Luongo didn’t live up to his end of the bargain. Let this also be a cautionary tale about handing out long-term contracts and handling people.

[Also: Oilers deal Ilya Bryzgalov to Wild, obtain Viktor Fasth from Ducks]

Luongo won Olympic gold as Team Canada’s starter in Vancouver in 2010. But he lost his second straight playoff series to the Chicago Blackhawks that spring, stepped down as captain that fall and started stumbling again in the playoffs in 2011. After yanking Luongo in back-to-back losses to the ’Hawks in the first round, Vigneault started Cory Schneider in Game 6. Schneider cramped up, and Luongo had to relieve him. The Canucks lost that game in overtime, but they won Game 7 in OT with Luongo in goal – narrowly avoiding losing a series they had led 3-0 – and then went all the way to the Cup final.

After giving up 12 goals to the Bruins in Games 3 and 4, Luongo bounced back with that shutout in Game 5. One more win. That’s all he needed. But then he made a comment about Thomas’ playing style, and then the media blew it up, and then he made another comment about how he had been pumping Thomas’ tires while Thomas hadn’t said anything nice about him, and then it all went to hell. He gave up four goals in a span of 4:14 in Game 6, a Cup final record, and the Canucks lost 5-3. He gave up three goals on 20 shots in Game 7, and the Canucks lost 4-0. The loss to the Bruins was not all Luongo’s fault. The Bruins pushed around the Canucks, who couldn’t respond on the power play, but Luongo buckled.

The Canucks have won one playoff game since.

Schneider supplanted Luongo as the starter during the playoffs in 2012. In retrospect, Gillis should have traded Luongo afterward, especially when he was about to sign Schneider to a three-year, $12 million deal. Luongo could have helped the cause by waiving his no-trade clause for more teams so Gillis could have worked a wider market. Gillis might have been able to get Luongo to Toronto, anyway, but he wanted too much for a guy on an albatross contract. That was a mistake.

The owners locked out the players during labor negotiations. When the sides reached a new collective bargaining agreement, it contained rules that penalized long-term, back-diving contracts like Luongo’s if the player retired early. Luongo’s contract became even harder to move. When the Canucks didn’t deal Luongo before the deadline last season, Luongo said in a press conference: “My contract sucks.”

[More: Top 10 GMs to watch at NHL trade deadline]

Luongo became a sympathetic figure as he took a back seat to Schneider – remarkable considering his failures and his salary. When Gillis traded Schneider instead of Luongo at the draft last year because the younger, cheaper goalie was easier to move, fans rooted for Luongo to get his groove back. When new coach John Tortorella started Eddie Lack over Luongo in the Heritage Classic stadium game on Sunday, fans chanted for Luongo and rode Lack. Now that Luongo is headed for Florida, tweeting a lone emoticon of a palm tree, people are happy that a multi-millionaire athlete is riding off into the sunshine.

That’s a measure of how badly the Canucks screwed with Luongo and screwed this up, and that’s a measure of how Luongo showed class and a sense of humor on Twitter and in interviews. Luongo faltered at times, didn’t win the big one and could have done more to facilitate a trade, but he was still one of the best goalies in the NHL and deserved better.

Canucks fans deserved better. Gillis had Luongo and Schneider less than a year ago, and now he has neither – netting only a ninth overall draft pick (Bo Horvat) for Schneider and then goalie Jacob Markstrom and center Shawn Matthias for Luongo. (He also sent Steven Anthony to Florida.) Lack and Markstrom, once teammates in Sweden, have played 68 regular-season and zero playoff games – combined – in the NHL.

The crazy part? The Canucks are eating a chunk of Luongo’s contract, and if he retires early, they will still be penalized under the new NHL rules – absorbing as much as an $8.5 million cap hit if he retires in 2021. Luongo is 34 now. He will be past 40 then. Even if the cap is much higher, that will hurt the Canucks. But it won’t hurt as much as what could have been.

“When I look back on it, it all worked out well,” Luongo said on his way to the airport, staying classy as usual. “But it would have been nice to maybe have a Cup ring.”